A grasping riot of mutual pocket-pickers

COYNE: Edmontonians saw federal funding not as a favour, but as an entitlement
Artist's rendering of EXPO 2017
Artist's rendering of EXPO 2017

The writer for the Edmonton Sun was measuring his words. Edmontonians, he wrote, “don’t feel we have been kicked in the teeth by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Edmonton ‘lieutenant’ Rona Ambrose.” Pause. “Because it’s far more comparable to being kicked in the groin.”

He was hardly alone in the sentiment. It was a “cold shoulder to the jaw,” said the Edmonton Journal. A writer for the paper complained the city had been “stonewalled, snubbed and rejected without appeal.” As for the mayor, well, “this is the most disheartened day I’ve had as an Edmontonian, as a Canadian, as an Albertan,” he said, accusing Ambrose of having “failed the city.”

And everyone agreed: come the next election, local Tory MPs would pay with their seats.
What had set off all this rending of garments? What terrible injury had the city suffered? The federal government had failed to cough up the $706 million the city was hoping would help defray the costs of putting on Expo 2017, on which it has bid. Edmonton was a pleasant, prosperous place to live before it ever entered anyone’s head to host a world’s fair, as it will be long after Expo 2017, wherever it is eventually held, has been forgotten. But at this particular moment in time, the fair’s promoters had worked themselves up into the belief that the whole future of the city depended on it.

And, more to the point, that they were owed. The money was not something they were requesting, as a special favour. No, it was theirs. They were entitled to it.

To be fair, Edmontonians have some reason to feel ill-used. The feds had, after all, kicked in funding for the Vancouver Olympics, as they have the Toronto Pan-Am Games. As citizens of the richest province, moreover, Albertans foot a disproportionate amount of the bill whenever Ottawa flashes its credit card in this way.

But the sense of grievance, the bellicose rhetoric, the demands that local MPs “deliver the goods,” the willingness to resort to blackmail and threats—that was all too familiar. In recent times we have seen the same script played out in Quebec City, over its proposed arena, and in Saskatchewan, over potash, and in Newfoundland, over just about everything. Nor are these isolated examples. It is the standard tactic of every province, industry or interest group in the country, all of them firmly convinced the rest of the country is sponging off them, and each one just as insistent the rest of Canada owes them a living.

Because that’s the principle at work in each of these disputes. Even where there is no explicit transfer of funds from the federal treasury, it’s always about redistributing income from one group of Canadians to another. The Potash decision, for example, was not, as claimed, about Ottawa “saying no” to a foreign multinational. It was about Ottawa confiscating the capital gain the sale might have yielded the Canadian shareholders in Potash Corp.—and from the other companies across the country in which they might have reinvested the proceeds—for the benefit of the government of Saskatchewan, and whichever interests it preferred to favour.

Possibly, if those involved stopped to think, they would feel ashamed. It is a shameful thing, after all, to beg. It is twice as shameful to beg that someone steal from someone else on your behalf. And it is three times as shameful if in fact you are not even begging, but demanding, backed by threats. But because it is the government, and especially because it is in far-off Ottawa, we persuade ourselves that we are not doing what we plainly are.

When did we become such chronic whiners? How did a country founded by fur traders and built by sodbusters and loggers and adventurers of every kind turn into this grasping, covetous riot of mutual pocket-pickers?

I’ll tell you how. Because it works. Because time after time, the federal government has shown it can be rolled. Because, in the end, the money is there. And it will not stop until the feds start saying no, until they make clear that, actually, the money is not there—it’s all borrowed—and it certainly isn’t theirs.

Or short of that, we could lay down a few ground rules. First, that the only moral basis of redistribution is from rich to poor—not from Edmonton to Quebec, or Quebec to Edmonton, or city to country, or roads to trains to planes and back to roads, or the thousand other ways in which governments attempt the arithmetically impossible task of redistributing from everybody to everybody.

Second, ministers should be legally required, when making spending announcements, to express them as a percentage of the budget, rather than in dollar terms. This would have three salutary effects. One, to destroy the pretense that the money is a result of the minister’s personal munificence. Two, to emphasize that spending decisions are about choices, about allocating scarce resources among competing wants, not raw amounts. And three, to produce a disappointingly small number: “three-tenths of one per cent of current federal spending” is rather less exciting than “$706 million.”

Last, there should be appointed a Minister of Opportunity Costs, whose sole responsibility would be to remind his colleagues around the cabinet table that nothing is free, that to favour one industry is to penalize every other. No doubt they will be astonished to hear it. Every single time.